At Least 11 Dead in Wake of Michigan Tornado, Canada Derecho

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Yves here. Perhaps most of you know the term derecho, but it’s new to me, and a sign at least some of us are having to bone up on our extreme weather vocabulary. And as I infer, this is a real term of art, and not a Weather Channel sensationalism, like “bomb cyclone” (I gather there is a term of art, explosive cyclogenesis, that does not slip trippingly from the tongue).

By Bob Henson and Jeff Masters. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

Record-warm air sweeping unusually far north for May provided the fuel for a multi-day barrage of severe weather across eastern North America. The standout events included a deadly tornado in Gaylord, Michigan, on Friday and a massive derecho that brought destructive thunderstorm-driven winds across Canada’s most populated region on Saturday.

Michigan’s First Deadly Tornado in 12 Years

A powerful EF3 tornado with winds of 150 mph ripped through the northern Michigan town of Gaylord (population 3,600) on Friday afternoon, May 20, killing two and injuring 44. The two fatalities occurred in a mobile home park that was 95% destroyed. According to the Detroit Free Press, the toll could have been far more catastrophic, as the tornado came within 100 yards of a retirement home and a housing development for homeless veterans.

Figure 1. Damage to the Nottingham Forest mobile home park in Gaylord, Michigan, after the May 20, 2022 EF3 tornado. The tornado killed two people, with both fatalities occurring in the mobile home park. (Image credit: MSP Northern Michigan)

A Rare Location for a Strong Tornado

Strong killer tornadoes are uncommon in Michigan. The Gaylord tornado was the state’s first EF3 twister since the 2012 Dexter tornado, and Michigan’s first deadly twister since 2010. Michigan last experienced a deadlier tornado in 1980, when five died in an EF3 that hit Kalamazoo.

Northern Michigan very rarely experiences strong tornadoes: Only four other Michigan EF3 tornadoes have been documented to occur farther north than the Gaylord tornado. The only deadly Michigan tornado on record to occur farther to the north was an EF1 that hit Longrie in the Upper Peninsula on June 8, 1985, killing one person. The Gaylord tornado is just the fifth deadly tornado to hit northern Lower Michigan; the deadliest was an EF2 that passed just northwest of Tawas City on June 8, 1953, killing four. (Further south on that same day, the Flint tornado took 116 lives, making it the state’s deadliest on record.)

Since accurate tornado records began in 1950, no tornado had come closer than eight miles from Gaylord. Because of the rarity of tornadoes, the city does not have tornado sirens, and tornado awareness is a concern (check out the astonishing disinterest this man displays while walking through the tornado). Gaylord is a popular stop along the busy I-75 route to the vacation destinations of northern Michigan, but as of Monday, May 23, the I-75 exits into the city’s main business were still closed.

Millions of Canadians Experienced Saturday’s Derecho

An intense derecho-generating thunderstorm complex formed just northeast of Detroit late Saturday morning and tracked northeast, bringing high winds to most of the large Canadian cities from Toronto to Quebec City.

“Derechos of similar intensity have occurred before in this part of Canada, but never has one had a track like this that followed the length of the most densely populated corridor in the country,” said Chris Scott, chief meteorologist at the Weather Network, in a Monday analysis.

Notable wind reports on Saturday, as compiled by the Weather Network:

Toronto (Pearson International Airport):  120 km/hr (75 mph), the strongest on record for May and the fifth highest wind gust on record;

Ottawa International Airport: 120 km/hr (75 mph), second strongest for May and fourth strongest on record;

Quebec City (Jean Lesage International Airport):  100 km/hr (62 mph);

Lake Memphremagog, Quebec (north of QB/VT border):  144 km/hr (89 mph).

The derecho in Canada on Saturday took at least nine lives, one of the largest derecho-related death tolls in North America in recent memory. The derecho also brought down countless trees and cut power to more than 950,000 customers, likely representing well over one million residents. Given Canada’s population of around 38 million, it’s a fair bet that around 3-4% of Canada’s entire population was hit by power loss, a huge percentage for any natural disaster. (A comparable loss in the U.S. would be roughly 9 million customers.)

Any strong thunderstorm can produce localized high winds, but a derecho is a much more organized and persistent zone of high winds, typically produced by a large thunderstorm cluster called a mesoscale convective system. Based on the most recent definition from experts at the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center, a derecho includes:

  • a swath of wind damage at least 60 miles wide and 400 miles long
  • gusts of at least 58 mph along most of its length
  • several gusts of at least 75 mph, well separated along the path
  • radar features consistent with a derecho, such as a bow echo

No tornadoes had yet been identified in association with the derecho and parent thunderstorms, although some may be documented in post-storm analysis.

North America’s most recent derecho of this intensity and scope tore from Nebraska to Indiana on August 10, 2020, killing four people. Together with 25 weak tornadoes, that severe weather event caused more than $12 billion in damage (2022 USD), the largest inflation-adjusted toll from any derecho-dominated event in U.S. records dating back to 1980.

“The best way to meteorologically describe the EF3 in Gaylord, MI and the derecho in Canada would be ‘anomalous but not unprecedented’,” said Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at Aon. “The humanitarian impacts to life and property were, however, significant and will lead to a long period of recovery for the hardest-hit communities.”

Is Climate Change Nudging Severe Weather BNorthward?< Given the events of the past few months, it’s understandable to wonder whether North America’s severe weather is pushing northward and/or shifting toward normally cooler months. For example, near the end of 2021, the U.S. suffered through its two worst December tornado outbreaks on record, including the deadliest (December 10-11, with at least 89 fatalities, mainly in Kentucky) and the most prolific (December 15, with 120 tornadoes observed over an eight-hour span from Nebraska to Wisconsin).

Derechoes are not unheard of in the spring and fall, or even in winter (the bizarre tornado outbreak of December 15 included a widespread derecho). But the type that buzzsawed across Canada is most common in summertime, fueled by hot, humid air to the south of a surface front and strong upper-level winds that can mix down within thunderstorms.

As it turns out, the U.S. Midwest and Northeast were swaddled in unusually sultry air in the second week of May and again late last week, helping set the stage for both the Michigan tornado and the Canada derecho. Record daily highs of 90°F or higherreached as far north as Montpelier, Vermont, on Saturday.

While Canada has long been known for intense hailstorms in Alberta, Bowen notes that the last few years have produced notable wind and tornado events from Manitoba to Quebec, with Canadian wind damage now topping $1 billion USD in some years.

Thus far, the examples of major severe weather in North America occurring unusually far north and/or unusually early or late in the year haven’t added up to a robust, documented trend. Research results so far on early-season tornado trends have been scant and inconsistent, as discussed in this explainer “Tornadoes and climate change: Any connection?” Derechoes are far less frequent than individual tornadoes, so it’s even tougher to confirm long-term trends. And it’s unclear how the entire constellation of ingredients that can drive derechoes and tornadic thunderstorms (including upper-level wind shear and “capping” layers of warm, dry mid-level air) will evolve as the climate warms.

Still, any time unseasonably warm, moist air migrates far to the north of its usual locale during the normally cooler months of the year, it’s wise to watch for potential severe weather and to expect the unexpected.

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  1. Louis Fyne

    I vaguely recall seeing a headline for this over the weekend—I didn’t know so many people died!

    The editorial influence/control by DC-Manhattan news bureaus over the news cycle is insane as decades ago this storm would have been headline news for the entire weekend.

    1. jrkrideau

      Latest Cdn death count as of ~ 2022/05/24 06:00 is 10.

      I was just a few kilometres south of the storm track. We got so fairly high winds a about half an hour of heavy rain but nothing out of the ordinary. Then I started to hear the news reports. Ottawa is claiming worse damage than the 1998 ice storm.

    2. playon

      Yes it’s surprising about the news – I had not heard about it until today on this site.

  2. Alyosha

    MI resident. Gaylord is a small town but it’s a busy one for non-locals as the last stop on I75 south of the bridge with much in the way of food/gas options. It’s also one of the gateways to “up north” for the trolls who don’t make it across the bridge but think they went north. It’s also famous for weird weather.

    You can be driving I75 on a beautiful day and somehow there’s a blizzard in Gaylord. A coworker was at the Culver’s restaurant when every phone in the place started alerting. After initially ignoring it, he and his family (wife and infant) went to the restrooms. Culver’s wasn’t destroyed like the businesses across the street but it was heavily damaged. His truck didn’t get flipped but all the windows were blown out, the vehicle next to his was flipped over. He had to use his first aid training to apply a tourniquet on a woman’s leg slashed by broken glass.

  3. johnf

    According to R.H. Johns (2007), derecho is a modern revival of an old term. I did not encounter it as a meteorology student at Chicago in the early 1980s – and I took Ted Fujita (Mr. Tornado)’s mesoscale analysis class.

  4. Lexx

    Nope, didn’t read a word about tornadoes that far north. I grew up familiar with ‘tornado alley’; every relative from Kansas to Texas had a concrete tornado shelter planted in their backyards. But I thought I knew the perimeter of that alley and I think maybe I need to revise my mental map. Michigan was not on it, much less Canada!

    Here are some graphics:

  5. Bart Hansen

    We had a damaging derecho in June of 2012 here in central VA. It tore the tops off several maples and a large oak was knocked over only to barely miss the house.

    Back then it was a new term for us. Derecho means straight in Spanish, which describes how the compact storm, not a lengthy cold front, moves straight across several states, usually from the northwest to the southeast.

    1. Samuel Conner

      IIRC, the Summer 2012 derecho was a straight line of storms, hundreds of miles long, oriented roughly north/south and moving west to east.

      I think there were many trees down across many states. It took more than a week to restore power to the worst-affected parts of my town.

    2. LaRuse

      Yep, I was caught outside at the base of Terrapin Mountain in Sedalia VA when the 2012 derecho hit. I was a weather nerd and I still had never heard of a derecho back then. We were supposed to camp at the Sedalia Center that weekend for an outdoor event but the power went down with the storm and we ultimately drove back to Richmond that night, with nearly everywhere being without power the whole way home. I learned the hard way to check the radar as far west as Chicago now on days when the heat index is over 110* as it was that day in 2012.

      1. Darius

        Took out a large old oak in my suburban Maryland yard. Another one did a job on my parents’ house in Maryland in 1989. At that time, they called them microbursts. I recall a landing jetliner being flattened just shy of the runway by a microburst.

  6. CanCyn

    I had never heard the term derecho before this past weekend.
    I live southwest of the Ottawa area (2 hour drive). The storm just touched us, some rain, a bit of thunder and lightening and strong winds. We are on a well so the big problem for us (if we don’t have to worry about cold temperatures) when we have no power is no water. The forecast was for the storm to hit around 8pm Saturday night. It moved much faster than predicted, hitting in the late afternoon. We had our emergency water containers filled but hadn’t filled the bathtub (think toilet flushing). We were without power from around 4pm Saturday to 9am Sunday. My brother’s family is closer to Ottawa, about an hour west, they were without power for about 24 hours.
    Here is a CBC wrap up of where things stand now and some interesting photos. ‘Worse than the ice storm’ that hit this region a while back. We didn’t live here then but our road was without power for days. We are now researching back-up generators. We didn’t get one when we moved here a couple of years ago because the neighbours all said that, since the ice storm, prolonged power outages hadn’t happened, presuming improvements to the grid. I guess they’re going to have to do more. I always thought buried lines were the way to go but, according to this article, tornadoes did damage to buried lines a few years back.

    1. digi_owl

      Yeah, burrying do not help much when the tornado ram a tree trunk straight through them.

  7. digi_owl

    Tornadoes have been more in the news in Europe as well over the last couple years.

    Just the other day one ripped through parts of Germany.

  8. Donald

    I got caught in a derecho about twenty years ago on a visit to my parents while out jogging. I had seen the approaching thunderstorms on the distant horizon when I started out and thought I had plenty of time for a run. I usually tell the story with a joke that with the wind at my back and the adrenaline I probably never ran a faster mile ( approximately how far I had to get back home) but it was probably true. There was a hill that would have normally slowed me down but I barely noticed.

  9. Hayes Smith

    We had a devastating Derecho in Memphis, TN July 11, 2003, which to this day we refer to as Hurricane Elvis. Some buddies and me were caught out in the storm on our bikes; there was no warning because no tornados were involved. After being literally blown off our bikes, we took shelter under a church porte-co chere. We had to walk our bikes back home as the streets were unpassable due to fallen trees and power lines. There was widespread damage throughout the city; I personally was without power for 14 days, and my place of employment had to relocate for six months for repairs to be made. Remarkably, only one death. Never want to go through that again.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    I beleive in Spanish, derecho (a, feminine) straight also means right as opposed to left and “the right” (entitlement) depending on context. It’s not quite as versatile as Tarzan’s “Ungowa” (my spelling, sorry) which can mean virtually anything depending on the moment, but it definitely packs a punch in meanings, why not also in volume and organization of (focused/straight) direction of wind/energy.

    1. David in Santa Cruz

      La derecha = to the right
      El derecho = straight ahead or a right as in derechos humanos/ human rights

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Actually, as a noun, El derecho always refers to your second example (derechos humanos) a right as in, an entitlement, and never to a direction.

    2. juno mas

      The use of the Spanish word “derecho” for these straight ahead, severe storm events first began in the late 1800’s as a desription of these special storm events. ” Derecho” was used to differentiate these straightline. convective storm events from Tornados (also a Spanish term)

      However, the term was only used by weather scientists (who disagreed on the physics of these two different storm types). It wasn’t until the 1970’s that modern weather scientists re-introduced the term to the weather lexicon.

      So, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re probably not alone. Just be aware that a Derecho is NOT a Tornado. They are different.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Thanks, I gleaned it was not a tornado (or, mistakenly, that it was a special kind of tornado) but nice to have it more accurately.

        Adding, deeply sorry for the loss of life in this instance.

      2. johnf

        Scholars of the history of “derecho” should consult the link I posted earlier. I expect a citation search will confirm the following work reintroduced the term:

        Johns, R. H., and W. D. Hirt, 1987: Derechos: widespread convectively induced windstorms. Wea. Forecasting, 2, 32-49.

  11. orlbucfan

    I’ve been following Masters/Henson for years, first on Weather Underground, and now the Yale Climate site. They are my Bible during hurricane season, and have been a godsend. Living in hurricane-ville (Florida), I’m very familiar with phenomena like derechos, tornadoes, etc. Hate them.

  12. Dick Swenson

    I’m not sure that BB above is correct.

    There are two words, DERECHO, DERECHA that both can translate in English to “right.” Worse, this English word can have at least two different meanings. Even worse, the “o”word functions as a modifier (ajective, adverb) while the “a “form is a noun.

    Now as to meaning, the best recommendation is to look in a good grammar book.Typically, in giving or receiving directions, the “o” form signifies “straight ahead” while the “a” form means “right” in the legal or “handedness.” You need to be careful if you want to be thought of as a competent Spanish speaker or writer.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      I didn’t intend to be thought of one way or another ( particularly with regards to Spanish) and am glad to be corrected when appropriate. I probably should have simply said that the meaning depends on context and this is well explained in my link responding to @David In Santa Cruz.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Adding that all I was trying to do was tease out a reason for derecho being used as a meteorological term. A dictionary, much less a grammar, isn’t always readily at hand so as my first two words were intended to suggest, one falls back on what “I believe” the meaning is.

  13. Lunker Walleye

    We had more than one derecho pass through our Great Plains state in 2020. It was devastating for many. In our neighborhood of woodlands, many trees were ripped, twisted or uprooted. We were without power for days in our metropolitan neighborhood. Sorry to hear of the loss of lives and property damage that happened in Canada and elsewhere recently.

  14. johnnyme

    Derecho entered the lexicon of most Minnesotans after the infamous July 4, 1999 Boundary Waters–Canadian derecho (also known as “The Blowdown“) flattened an estimated 25 million trees in 600 square miles of forest in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness during the busy holiday weekend.

    A friend and I went up later to an area adjacent to one of the worst hit areas (in some places 100% of the trees had been knocked down), long after the Forest Service cleared all the campsites and trails, and I’ll never forget walking down a path that they had literally carved through the debris — the height of the debris along most of the route was over eight feet tall.

    1. MarkT

      There are different types of storms that can have long tracks of damage. It’s all about the mechanism involved. Tornadoes are very different to hurricanes, which are very different to derechos. Which are different to downbursts.

  15. Dick Swenson

    And I apologize for the typos and grammar mistakes in my comment. Proofreading one’s own writing is always necessary.

    It is very difficult to insure that written and verbal comments are taken as simple comments. Nuance is always a problem. My comments were simply meant as informational, not as literary or other criticism. That I mentioned BB was perhaps inapprpriate, but was just my attempt to link my comment to previous ones.

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